How I Fixed Atari’s Awful Music

And Got Over My Fear of Out-of-Tune Game Toons

When I first saw the Atari 2600 and played a few of the early games, one of the things that stood out to me was just how bad it sounded when a game attempted to play music.

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Before I started developing for the machine, as a consumer, I never questioned why it sounded so bad; I just knew that the music was terrible. Clearly, no one at Atari had come to what I thought was the obvious conclusion that, if it’s a choice between out-of-tune music, or no music, no music is preferable. Put another way, for God’s sake, if it’s going to sound like caca, don’t even include it.

When I eventually started making games for the Atari system (1979/1980), I learned that the TIA chip in the system, which was a multi-function custom chip, was responsible for reading the inputs, handling the screen display, and generating audio. It had a lot on its plate. Further investigation determined that the TIA was “limited” in its ability to generate musical notes; “limited” meaning, it couldn’t do it.

In all fairness, at the time of the Atari 2600 (mid-1970’s), integrated circuits were relatively expensive to make. The more complex the circuitry, the more expensive the per-unit cost of the chip was. Therefore, to keep the complexity down, the designers of the TIA chip used “cheap and dirty” circuitry to generate a series of sound frequencies, with no consideration of how the resulting frequencies compared to the notes of a musical scale. In other words, many of the tones were “out of tune.” So, as a game developer, you could store a value in a register and get one of 32 tones of varying pitches, but God help you if you were trying to make music.

Therefore, when I started making games for the system, I didn’t even consider putting music in an Atari 2600 game. My first game, Space Jockey, from U.S. Games, came out in 1981, without music of any kind.

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My second 2600 game, Donkey Kong, came out in 1982. Even though the Donkey Kong arcade game had very fine music, I was having enough trouble making the game’s famous steel girders slant, so I wasn’t going to be slaying that dragon anytime soon.

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My third game was Keystone Kapers, which was my first game for Activision. While I was very pleased with the way the game came out, it was once again sans-melody.

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Finally, when I started working on my fourth Atari 2600 game, “chef” (which, through the magic of Activision marketing, became Pressure Cooker), I decided that for this one I wanted to have a game jingle. I had envisioned the game with an I Love Lucy “chocolates on the conveyor belt” level of frenzy, so, DAMN IT, I wanted a catchy jingle to get the player’s blood flowing.

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But I knew that a ton of the frequencies were out of tune, so what technical trick could I come up with to coax the Atari 2600 into playing beautiful, melodious in-tune music? The answer was, none. I couldn’t come up with any technical trick that worked, so I went to Plan B. Rather than forcing the Atari to do something it couldn’t do, I took the opposite approach, putting some effort into figuring out exactly what it could do. Just as I knew that some (or many) of the 32 frequencies generated by the Atari 2600 were out of tune, I assumed that there must be a few that were “in tune.”

I had a plan — enter my trusty Casio keyboard. With the keyboard sitting on my desk, I generated the Atari frequencies one by one, in the hope of finding at least a few that were close enough to audibly pass as “in tune.” As each tone was generated, I played the keys on the Casio, searching for a matching frequency. When I found a “winner,” I took plastic tape and marked the “matching” key on the Casio. Out of 32 tones, I determined that there were 13 random “Atari 2600 notes” available that sounded good.

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Armed with my new-found knowledge, I asked a coworker who had a long history in the music industry if he knew any professional jingle writers. He said that he thought he could track one down. I showed him my marked-up keyboard, at which point we shared a good laugh. He went off and made a couple of phone calls. Finally, we had an accomplished music composer on the line. He showed genuine excitement when we asked him if he had interest in composing a jingle for a video game.

When he visited our office, I showed him the in-progress work on the game, and he was psyched to sit down and start composing. You should have seen his face when I showed him the keyboard and told him he could only use the marked notes! He thought about it for a second or two, nodded his head, and got to work. Like magic, in less than a half an hour, he had composed a wonderful, catchy jingle using only the marked keys.

I encoded his notes into a frequency table for my code and I was off and running. The first time we heard the Pressure Cooker jingle play on the Atari, I smiled ear-to-ear. It was a thing of beauty.

The link below should go to a YouTube video of Pressure Cooker. Check out the spiffy jingle at the game opening:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SshmI9VpoSU

Solving the source music problem on the Atari 2600 is one of my fondest memories in working on the platform. To this day, I love the Pressure Cooker jingle, especially since it doesn’t sound like caca.

Written by

Garry Kitchen is a retro video game designer whose titles include Donkey Kong (2600), Keystone Kapers, GameMaker (1985) and Bart (Simpson) vs the Space Mutants.

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